Barack Obama is not used to being the guy not invited to a party. At the Copenhagen global warming conference, however, he found that not everyone wanted to hang with him. Our president can't take a hint.
After Mr. Obama's bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the Chinese began sending lower-level functionaries to the multilateral meetings. A frustrated Mr. Obama pressed for another bilateral meeting, which was scheduled for Friday at 6:15 p.m. Other leaders of the countries known as the "BASIC" bloc were harder to pin down.
The Obama team tried to schedule a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and was told he was at the airport readying to leave. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also was unavailable. South African President Jacob Zuma said there was no point meeting without India and Brazil. Then the Chinese pushed the bilateral meeting back to 7 p.m.
"We were told they were at the airport," a senior administration official said. "We were told delegations were split up. We were told they weren't going to meet." So imagine Mr. Obama's surprise when he arrived for the bilateral powwow and found all four leaders in the room already in deep discussion. "Are you ready for me?" he said with an "uncharacteristic edge" to his voice, according to a CBS News report.
"We weren't crashing a meeting," an Obama flack later explained defensively. "We were going for our bilateral meeting." But that didn't stop him from walking in where he wasn't invited. Clearly, Mr. Obama learned a few things from his own White House party crashers.
There was no chair at the table for Mr. Obama so he announced he would sit next to his "friend Lula," whose staff had to scramble to make room for the president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. On Monday, Mr. da Silva used his weekly radio program to rebuke the United States for its stance at Copenhagen.
After Mr. Obama arrived, the BASIC group was basically held hostage. They had tried politely to keep Mr. Obama at arms length, but since he showed up, decorum mandated that they find a way to save face.
The countries reached agreement on three pages of noncommittal boilerplate - and Mr. Obama rushed out to declare that he had once again saved the day. "For the first time in history," he said, "all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change." He then left the global warming conference, hurrying to beat the record-setting blizzard descending on Washington.
U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon declared that the conferees "sealed the deal." But there was no deal. The conference chose not to adopt the Copenhagen Accord after opposition from Latin American nations that are part of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Alliance. The general session became the scene of high theater, or farce - at one point a Venezuelan delegate cut her hand to dramatize the blood of the poor being spilled by the rich. In the end, the document was officially "noted" by the assembled, which renders it not only nonbinding but nonexistent for those countries that choose to ignore it.
Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei made a point of saying that it was "not an agreed document, it was not formally endorsed or adopted." And while the White House argues that something is better than nothing, in some respects the accord really is nothing. Appendices One and Two, which were supposed to lay out detailed emissions targets and mitigation actions for signatory counties, were left blank.
The Copenhagen conference was a lesson in power and humility. The countries in the BASIC bloc demonstrated that the United States lacks the leverage necessary to convince them to make decisions that work against their national interests. And Mr. Obama is learning the uncomfortable lesson that there are limits to what his personal charisma can achieve.
Mr. Obama did make history at Copenhagen, but not in the way he expected. It says a great deal about American power and prestige when international leaders go to so much trouble to avoid meeting with the president of the United States. The American Century is over.